31 Days of Centering Prayer

Candle by Nadia SzopinskaHi everyone! I’ve decided to do a fun little blogging challenge for the month of October. For 31 days straight, I will do Centering Prayer for at least 15 minutes, at least once a day, and I will blog about my experiences here. Hopefully it will be encouraging to others, because let’s face it: a daily prayer habit is hard, particularly when our lives seem to get busier all the time. Yet it’s definitely a habit I feel is worth cultivating, so this will be my attempt to put my money where my mouth is.
I’m excited to share my month-long experience with you all. Check back later for more updates!

The graphic I made is based on a photo graciously provided by Nadia Szopinska.

Day 1: The Reasons Why I Shouldn’t Do This

Day 2: 4 Simple Steps to Centering Prayer

Day 3: I Am With You Always

Day 4: Book of the Week: Sister Wendy on Prayer

Day 5: Step One: Choosing a Word

Day 6: Step Two: Sitting Comfortably

Day 7: Step Three: Letting Go

Day 8: Step Four: Concluding with Silence

Day 9: Why Silence?

Day 10: A Great Prayer by a Great Contemplative

Day 11: Book of the Week: The Cloud of Unknowing

Day 12: Thoughts on Prayer and Time

Day 13: Prayer and Healing

Day 14: Distracting Thoughts: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Day 15: Words Vs. Silence

Day 16: Burdens Lifted

Day 17: The Fruits of the Spirit Don’t Fit in My Shopping Cart

Day 18: Book of the Week: New Seeds of Contemplation

Day 19: The Real Secret about Prayer

Day 20: My Top Distracting Thought During Prayer and What It Means

Day 21: The Most Amazing Portable, Free Prayer Tool

Day 22: I Must Become Less

Day 23: The Necessary Luxury of Prayer

Day 24: When I Don’t Know How to Pray

Day 25: Book of the Week: Manifesting God

Day 26: A Helpful Mnemonic for Centering Prayer

Day 27: When I Think to Myself, “Why Pray?”

Day 28: I Need More Salt

Day 29: Getting Ready to Close the Door Again

Day 30: The Humblest of Miracles

Day 31: The End is the Beginning

Prayer for a Busy Life

Fifteen minutes (maybe ten) before I have to leave for work. I curl up with a blanket and my Bible, the first bit of sunlight streaming through my window. I read a psalm, then read it again, letting the words of praise, grief, more praise sink in.Walking to work, skirting traffic, trying to keep my umbrella level. My body is groggy and allergic to coffee, but my mind is even sleepier. It’s the opposite of the time when you fall asleep and dream fragments drift constantly into your head. I try to center my mind around this: Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these…

I duck into an unused conference room on my break. Quiet spaces in the office are precious these days. I read from the tattered turquoise copy of My Utmost for His Highest that’s lived in my purse forever. Or maybe I offer up some words for my friend with five kids between the teen years and babyhood, who doesn’t get official breaks. Or maybe I just sit there for a few minutes in silence, trying to let go of thoughts and just be who I am with the great I Am.

Walking home. I feel too exhausted to create words of my own, but I jam my earbuds in and turn on the audio Gospel. I am the vine, and you are the branches… As the Father loved me, so I have loved you… Now remain in my love… The words come out crackly and the background music is corny, but the message washes over me and my spirit relaxes into a posture of Amen.

So many days this is all I feel I can do, a moment of prayer snatched here and there, like a bite on the run. With so little, God does so much. I offer my crumbs, and God gives me bread for life.

“Take [the peaceful moments of your day], poor crumbs of minutes though they may be, and give yourself to God in them. You will not be able to feel prayerful in them, but that is beside the point… We should be misers in prayer, scraping up these flinders of time and holding them out trustfully to the Father… There is time enough for what matters supremely to us, and there always will be.” Sister Wendy Beckett

How do you weave prayer or meditation or moments focusing on what truly matters into your daily life?

Ernie and the Feast of St. Francis

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

Last year, on the eve of the Feast of St. Francis, I left our church building late. The next day, the building would be alive with people who brought their animals in for a blessing, cats and dogs and mice and snakes crowding the pews with their humans. Tonight, however, had been the Transitus service, commemorating the passage of St. Francis from his earthly life into the arms of God.

I wasn’t planning on coming the next day; I was scheduled to take the GRE instead. Ironic, to skip church so you can take a standardized test and apply to graduate school for the purpose of being a Bible scholar. Some of the other parishioners who knew about tomorrow’s appointment were shocked that I’d come to the evening’s service instead of studying. But I felt like I’d already put in my effort on this, and now it was up to God. So why not spend the evening listening to Scripture, remembering a beloved saint, and revisiting why I was doing this in the first place?

No one offered me a ride home that night, so I slunk out the side entrance of the church, intending to slip home in the shadows. But I’d forgotten my eye-catching attire, the hand-sewn quasi-Franciscan robe I’d inherited from someone in our community who had passed away. I could never walk down the street wearing such a thing without comment, and tonight was no exception.

“Hey!” said a voice from the darkness. “You’re dressed up like a monk, aren’t you?”

I turned around to see a man maybe in his late fifties or early sixties sitting in a folding chair with his meager possessions in front of our church building (a not uncommon sight which doesn’t endear us to some of our neighbors). He was smiling, seemed friendly, and suddenly I was inclined to talk to him.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m dressed like St. Francis because we’re celebrating his feast day tomorrow.”

“I knew it,” he said triumphantly. “This church of yours is a good place. Your pastor gave me one of these Catholic Bibles. Now I know the Bible backward and forward, but this has books I’ve never read before, and I can’t wait to get down to studying them.”

“So you like reading the Bible?”

I was just being polite, but his face lit up at the question. He started telling me what he read in the Bible that brought him joy – leaping from page to page of the great Story with ease, shining light on connections between Law and Gospel.

I found myself nodding and echoing things he said, all but saying “Amen.” This strange man, with his days worth of stubble, sitting in his folding chair surrounded by all his worldly possessions, was speaking encouragement to my soul.

At one point he paused and appeared to size me up. “You get what I’m saying, don’t you? You don’t think I’m crazy?”

I shook my head. “I think you make more sense than almost anyone else I know.”

He smiled and extended his hand. “I’m Ernie. Nice to meet you.”

From there, Ernie told me some of his own story. He said he’d been caring for his elderly mom for years back east and had decided to leave her in the care of other relatives so he could travel and do other work for awhile. But when he’d gotten here, there was little work, and his savings had rapidly dwindled until he could no longer afford to get back home, then until he had no place to live.

He said he couldn’t ask money from his mother, since she lived on a fixed income, and anyway he was sure he would soon figure out how to get a ticket back. He said he was trying to make his way further north, where he was sure more work could be found.

He told me this without a trace of self-pity and didn’t ask anything from me. Finally, he fished a picture out of one of his suitcases and showed it to me beaming. “That’s my mom, right there. My best friend.”

“You look like her,” I said. “Same smile.”

I realized I’d been standing there for at least an hour listening to him talk. I’d forgotten about the text the next day. I’d forgotten about everything but the Story God told and this man’s story of his life.

“You’re probably thinking you should head home,” he said, noticing the look on my face. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Rachel.”

“You too, Ernie,” I said. “Thank you. I hope I’ll see you around.” And I walked off into the night, his words still buzzing in my ears, words that tumbled over each other with his passion about the Bible.

I took the test the next day, locked for five hours in a gray room with noise-canceling headphones. I rocked it (well, at least the parts important to my future). I would have liked to have told Ernie, told him about my dream of studying the Bible, but I never saw him again after that night. Maybe he found a way to get where the work was, or even to get back home.

And I didn’t go to graduate school after all – not this year, anyway. I got accepted to my dream school, but didn’t get the financial aid I wanted, and I wasn’t sure whether I could make it work in the big picture of my life. After I deferred my admission I felt mostly numb, but a few weeks after that I cried for days straight, mourning my dream.

But now, when I think about that night I talked to Ernie, I feel more encouraged than ever about my future. I can do what I love – study Scripture and bring it into people’s lives – whether I end up in school or not. Ernie did, armed with almost nothing in this world but his Bible and his mind. He spoke truth to me from a humble folding chair in the shadows of the street, and I’ll never forget it.

View from the Back (Why I Go to Church, Part 2)

This post is an attempt at answering a question from Jessica of Faith Permeating Life. She is currently taking a break from blogging, but I encourage you to check out her archives. If you like A Glimpse in the Glass, I guarantee you will love Jessica’s insightful writing about her faith and life.

Here’s Why I Go to Church, Part 1.

When I was in college, I’d sit in the exact same place in just about every class: second row, second from the left. I wasn’t front and center under the professor’s gaze, but I was near enough that I could see and hear everything he or she did. Sitting there, I didn’t have to be distracted by my classmates, since most of them were behind me. I could focus on taking down every word out of my professor’s mouth. I wasn’t without friends in college, but generally I didn’t meet them in class, and I think sitting where I did contributed to that.

In church these days it’s the total opposite. I tend to sit in the back, by the right. I can still hear the Scripture and the sermon fine, but I am sometimes distracted from elements of the liturgy by the people around me. The back, you see, is where people sneak in when they’re late. It’s where newcomers who are unsure whether they’ll fit in sit. It’s where young mothers often sit so they can dash to the vestibule if the baby gets too loud. And the extreme right of the church, for whatever reason, is where most of our homeless congregants sit. Often during Mass I will hear a child fussing, someone asking their seatmate a hushed question, or a homeless visitor talking to someone who isn’t there. And surprisingly, I find it only adds to my enjoyment of the experience.

Honestly, I love the view from the back. From the front, I might only be able to see well-scrubbed families and pillars of the church. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! God bless those people!) But from the back, I see the whole holy mess, the miracle of the motley crowd God has managed to assemble. I can see people who are lonely, hungry, confused, distracted, crazy, and/or overwhelmed come back to hear the Word and eat the bread and wine week after week. Their dedication humbles me.

My parish is kind of weird for a Catholic faith community. In many ways, we’re on the fringe. Though still proudly Catholic, our focus is sometimes very different, both in liturgy and in the social issues we focus on. We question authority sometimes (shocking, I know!). Going to Mass there is kind of like sitting in the back of the Church. I get to hang out with all the people who are on the edges, those who might not feel comfortable in a more “traditional” church but who are desperate for grace and a chance to worship. I guess I would often describe myself that way as well. And I love us, with our big hearts and our deep flaws and our comfort with what makes others uncomfortable. When I go there, I know for sure I’m in the right place.

Be Still: A Lesson from My Cat

IMG_4008My three-legged tabby, Trivet, seems to think she’s a dog. There’s none of that cat aloofness or snootiness with her. Since I adopted her a little over two years ago, she scampers to the door when I walk inside it, whether I’ve spent all day at work or spent thirty seconds checking the mail. She rubs against my legs and yowls as I enter the apartment, not because she wants to get out or even because she’s hungry, but just because she missed me.

Honestly, I think pets are one of God’s greatest creations (I know technically people created pets through selective breeding, but surely God came up with the idea). First, you take an animal, which has no notion of hypocrisy, betrayal, or even gossip. All those things are human things; with an animal, you always know where you stand. Then you make it small and cute and prone to bond with and depend on human beings. Result: a relationship that makes up in unlimited, unconditional love what it lacks in words. Pure genius.

Considering all Trivet gives me and how little she asks in return, I try to keep her happy. Sometimes, though, I can’t figure out what she wants. I’ll get home from work and she’ll follow me as I putter around the apartment, fix a snack, read the mail. She screeches plaintively at me, clearly requesting something, and I try to figure out what.

Does she want me to rub her chin or scratch behind her ears? No, that doesn’t seem to satisfy her.

Does she have enough food and water? Yep.

Does she want me to play with her? No, she seems uninterested in any toy with which I try to tempt her.

Finally, I give up and sit down on the couch, at which point she climbs on my lap, settles in, and starts to purr.

She didn’t want me to do anything for her. She wanted me to do nothing with her. She wanted me to give up my idea of being productive and focus my energy on enjoying her presence. Without words, she managed to teach me something. After all, the best relationships are the ones where you can just sit and do nothing together.

How often do I take the time to do that with anyone? I lead a busy life and I’m kind of addicted to multitasking. I feel like I’m not making the most of my time if I’m not doing two things at once. But too often, when I do this, I end up doing both things badly, having given them both just a half-hearted effort. Isn’t this really thoughtlessness, faithlessness, the opposite of mindfulness?

The Word of God invites me: Be still. Be still, and know I am God. But I put that off. Who has time to be still? Who has time to just sit and enjoy God, remember the presence of God right here and now? Who has time to give up all activity, even reading Scripture, even praying with words, just to enjoy the gift of life and breath?

Luckily, I know from experience God is just as persistent as my cat. God will keep calling, and I’ll keep turning around and making a tiny holy space in my hectic life, maybe a little wider each time. Space to do nothing, and just be, with I Am Who I Am.

Humble Pie Never Tasted So Sweet

San Francisco de Asis Mission Church

(Photo credit: Snap Man)

You may be wondering how my visit to my mom went – my first visit in over six years. I must admit, as that train rocked restlessly I tried to distract myself from thoughts of the past, tears shed on previous visits, harsh words that had passed both ways between us over the years. I was full of anticipation and anxiety as I stepped off the train into the hot California morning.

And there she was, waiting just outside, screaming like I was a rock star. We hugged and kissed and I thought how different she looked after all these years apart – and I realized that, whether this visit lived up to my fears or exceeded my dreams, I’d be glad I had come, just for the privilege of being here, next to her in space.

As it happened, the visit was pretty great. I credit good timing, grace, and of course, your prayers. Thank you so much to all those who prayed. I’m so glad I asked; I could really feel the difference.

Over the three-day weekend, the two of us walked around town in the sunshine. We ate omelets with hash browns and English muffins at Mom’s favorite sun-soaked brunch place, real Tex-Mex like I hadn’t had in years, cut up fruit with lime juice and chili on the bus (probably against the rules). I stole sips of her iced mochas. We walked to the library and hung out outside it with a statue of John Steinbeck and the library mascot, a small tortoise. I read to her from The Message as her bedtime approached.

Most beautiful of all, we worshiped side by side in a big church packed with families. We sang songs I remembered from when I was a child, and it made me think of how Mom all but dragged me to church that first time, how patiently she’d answered my frantic, searching questions about religion as a child, her responses amounting to, Well, there are a lot of things we don’t know, honey. Be patient. God will reveal it to you. Without her guiding me toward baptism and my first taste of holy bread and wine, who knows if I’d believe today?

And then, before we ate bread and wine from the same table for the first time in seven years, we sat holding hands, waiting for the Scripture to be read to us. The lector’s voice rang out, speaking words from the book of Wisdom:

My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.

It was one of those times when the Word stood out to me in neon lights. This is for you. I knew I had almost been too proud to set aside my schedule, sacrifice the time and money I’d spent on the gift of this moment. I could have missed it all.

And then we made our way to the Table together for the first time in over seven years. I often thought of Mom when I received communion at home, knowing it brought me closer to her in a mystical way, but it was another thing to be right here beside her.

Mom had her problems when I was a kid. And I couldn’t kid myself: she has her problems now. We might never have your typical parent-child relationship. But I was grateful all the same for the relationship we had, for the ability to share what we did. I was so glad I’d humbled myself enough to admit I’d been wrong not to visit her all this time.

Yes, I’d been so wrong I could taste it. But bread and wine had never tasted sweeter.

Peacemaking with Joshua and Other Joshua

English: Joshua commanding the sun to stand still

They said a Mass for Peace on Sunday at my church. The day before that, Pope Francis called for a worldwide day of prayer and fasting for internal peace in Syria and against armed intervention.

And what am I in the middle of reading? The Book of Joshua. Blame my Bible reading plan, but really, can you get any more inappropriate?

If Joshua is not the most violent book in the Bible, it’s definitely right up there. The eponymous Joshua is an exalted Jewish military commander, literally on a mission from God to wipe out countless other cultures and take over their land. Here’s a choice quote from Joshua 6, the story of the famous takeover of Jericho: “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.”

There’s a lot of that. Utterly destroying everything and everyone in sight, all in the name of the Lord.

This is the kind of thing that makes evangelical atheists super smug. Me? I love the Bible, but I freely admit this part of it confuses and disturbs me.

There is apparently some level of consensus among Biblical historians that archaeological evidence doesn’t back up the events we read about in Joshua. According to these historians, the book is not so much history as a rewriting of events as the authors would have liked them to go, and also, obviously, an object lesson about obeying God (See, here’s how you do it, and here’s how much God blesses you in return… get the picture?).

In reality, the claiming of Canaan may have been much more gradual and less violent than the book of Joshua tells. But whether you believe the Bible is literal historical truth or not, the question remains… why is this in there? Why is it important? What do we have to learn from it? These are big questions, but I think one thing we can learn from Joshua is what peace can cost.

The name “Joshua” means “the Lord saves.” All the violence Joshua apparently committed was for the sake of saving his people, preserving them from outside influences and violence, giving them a homeland of their own.

And yet, there is another Joshua in the Bible who also saves his people, a much larger group of people, in a very different way.

Jesus is just the Latin version of the Greek version of Yeshua, a variant of Yehoshua, the name of the commander. I remember how shocked I was to realize this for the first time. How strange, I thought to myself, for the Prince of Peace, someone who by all accounts never did anything more violent than kick a fig tree, to share a name with a famous conqueror.

I think a peace like Joshua’s, a peace achieved by militarism and violence, is what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of “peace that the world gives.” Jesus would bring a different kind of peace at great personal cost and with no collateral damage. The only thing Jesus completely destroyed for the glory of God was his own body, and by doing so, he also destroyed the power of sin. The only innocent person harmed was Jesus himself.

Unlike world leaders and conquerors, Jesus never promised a peace that would give security or comfort. In fact, he said that those who followed him on the way of peace would have trouble, suffer attacks, and be hated by the world. But he also promised that following him was worth taking up that cross.

As a Christian, I know which Joshua has my heart. I know which one I ultimately need to follow.

I come from a powerful country, a country that puts a lot of faith in the redemptive power of violence. I need to reject that. In my life, I’ve passively accepted much violence, too absorbed in my daily life to care. I’ve enjoyed many blessings that were brought about and protected by acts of violence. I need to learn a better Way, to mourn the cost of that violence and do my best to make sure it is not repeated.

The Joshua who truly conquered the world was an innocent victim. When I think of someone suffering supposedly for the cause of peace, it’s his face I need to see.

Newsflash: Settlers of Catan Doesn’t Last Forever

Русский: Игра в "Settlers of Catan"

Forty-five minutes. That’s how long the Settlers of Catan box says it takes. Somehow I can’t seem to remember what a short time that is.

I kind of have a thing about board games. My sister and I got them every Christmas as kids, but rarely did we play them. We preferred games where we made up the rules, where our imagination set the only limits. And this was great: I remember fondly the entire days we spent on sagas in which Princess Clara (my Skipper doll) rescued entire civilizations of Littlest Pet Shop figurines from certain doom, armed only with her wits and her smart-mouthed flying pony. (I’m sure no one who knows me in real life will be surprised in the least to learn about this.)

The only downfall of such games with this: because there was no way to win or lose, I didn’t learn to do either one gracefully. And because I was such a natural perfectionist, I built up the importance of winning, or at least not losing badly, until it became life or death in my mind. Those few times we played Monopoly as a family (which really did seem to last forever – why is that game so long?) seemed to end with me overturning the board. I hated losing so much that I’d lose sight of absolutely everything else: friendships, family ties, proportion, dignity, and common sense.

I’m much better now. I mean, I’d better be, since board game parties are a popular way to hang out among my friends. Currently, I play Settlers several times a month, and I’ve never even been tempted to turn the board over (so far). But sometimes, I definitely slip back into bad habits. My adult version of this happens to be passive-aggressive comments delivered in that I’m-joking-or-am-I? tone of voice. Sometimes my frustration builds to the point where I’ll actually come out and say something outright: “Ugh, I can’t believe I even play this with you. I try to be nice and then you repay me by grinding my face in the dirt.”

I really don’t know why I act this way. It’s like I think the game is a map of my life, rather than something that’ll get packed up and tucked into my friend’s messenger bag, to be brought back the next time she comes over. The moments just seem so long that it seems to make total sense to blow off steam because I’m frustrated at myself for losing.

Maybe this seems like a small thing. In a way, it is. My friends let my remarks go by, because they’re much classier than I am, and they always offer to let me play again next time. My family has even long forgiven me for those horrible childhood games of Monopoly (at least I hope so). But as with so many things, it raises larger questions in my mind.

Why do I still somehow think it’s more important to win than to be kind? Why is it so hard for me to realize that, whether I win or lose, the game will soon be over and we’ll all forget about it? Why is it so hard for me to look at the faces of my friends instead of obsessively scrutinizing the board, to think about how blessed I am to be with them instead of counting my points and inwardly reciting the rules?

In the grand scheme of things, forty-five minutes is nothing. Even my life is just a breath. Everything will be over before I know it. Will I have spent my time obsessing over winning some kind of prize I can’t take with me, or will I be able to look past the fake rules and objectives and set my eyes on what really matters?

I guess I’ll work on the Catan game first. Then maybe I can work on remembering what really matters for the length of an entire movie. Wow, at this rate I hope I have enough time left to learn how to truly enjoy it…

Three Questions for a Life That Moves

Mt. Shasta California, from the south near Dun...

“Where did you come from and where are you going?”

That’s the perfect conversation starter when you’re on a moving train. Even though it was the start of a holiday weekend, some of us were starting out and some were going home; some of us would resume our normal lives and some of us were starting a new adventure. A woman in the seat behind me was moving to San Diego for work and had planned to ride the train all the way, but decided to get off at one of the early stops and road trip the rest with a friend. I eavesdropped on a young man who had never taken this trip before and dreamed of seeing Mt. Shasta; his touristy errors about California geography amused his seatmate, who lived there. One man informed me he was returning to his job as a transportation planner in L.A. Better you than me! I thought.

I wasn’t scheduled for the longest journey or the shortest, though mine was long enough that it felt like an adventure: watching the sunset from the observation car, sleeping with my purse as a pillow in coach class. I’d brought plenty to amuse myself along the way: St. Augustine’s Confessions and a (dense, lush) book on St. John of the Cross called The Impact of God, an audio book (Ready Player One) to listen to while knitting, some Greek homework and writing prompts. I was an old hand at these long journeys, having done thirty-six hours on the Greyhound bus to visit friends as a teenager. Once I even bussed from Tucson, Arizona to Appleton, Wisconsin for a total of forty-eight hours. This was nothing to that trip, and I knew if I brought good distractions, the time would go quickly.

Some hours in, I started to ponder the questions we ask each other on a train. I couldn’t leave my seat without being asked my itinerary by another traveler who was likely crossing paths with me for the first and only time. After “Where did you come from and where are you going?” the next question was always, “Why?” My answer was simple enough: visiting my mother. People nodded their heads when I said it. But I couldn’t help thinking they didn’t know how much of a story lurked in that statement, what a big deal it was for me to see her in person after all this time, how much I hoped for our relationship to be healed and redeemed by my visit. I’m sure there was much more to their stories, too, perhaps things they would never tell another person.

Time is also a moving train, a one-way trip we never bought a ticket for. Some of us have a long journey through time, others a short one, and we don’t know which. Some of us try to distract ourselves so time will pass more quickly, while others spend our time appreciating the changing beauty of the passing landscape and forming a deeper connection with our fellow passengers.

I’m definitely more of the first type, and I’d like to be more of the second.

So let’s start with these basic questions. I’m coming from a painful childhood and adolescence, during which I formed a lot of bad habits as coping mechanisms for my loneliness and confusion. I’m traveling on a path that has helped me become aware of what needs to change, and I’m hoping my destination will be a more complete and compassionate adulthood, with less ego and more pure wonder. I’m doing it because I want to be in better relationship with God, others, and myself, and because I dare to hope it’s possible with the help of the One who made up my itinerary.

Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Why?